The power plant. Or. The lightning.
Begun Inauguration day, 2009.
“Maybe fire is the opposite principle to light, and comes to the use of those who do not go the way of light. Fire has to consume to give all its light. But light gets its knowledge—and has its intelligence and its being—by going over things without the necessity of eating the substance of things in the process of purchasing their truth. Maybe this is the difference, the different base of not just these two poets, Bill and E.P., but something more, two contrary conceptions of love.”—Charles Olson, “GrandPa, Goodbye”
“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”
–Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Metropolis
Sometimes all I want is a little more power.
“(There is a myth that Prometheus did more than steal fire from the sun and bring it down to man: it is said that Prometheus fathered man.)”
There was a stadium.
My father hurled the bolt like a javelin.
The stadium became a brain
where electric branches dart from synapses
and this poem billows up like thunderheads.
I am made of lightning.
My father sat in the cave. Black hair covered him. It was as invisible as his long teeth and simian jaw, but flashes from the storm outside briefly illuminated his body.
Our troop roiled in the murk, bodies swapping blows. An antelope stank somewhere close. I crouched on a rock watching for my father’s inconstant profile.
Sudden light invaded the cave.
A tree outside caught fire.
My father stood.
He picked up a stick.
He marched toward the flames.
He carried back the power plant.
Our troop howled with fear and shied away from the shadows that shivered on the cave walls. My father had to coax each one of them to the stack of branches that he set alight and kept burning. Some tried to touch the flame and cried in pain at being burned.
I drew my father on the floor with my finger.
Stick figure lifting his torch.
My father gave me light to draw by.
I gave my first drawing to him.
By morning my careful lines had been replaced by a panicked dance of footprints.
Electricity is brevity and power at once.
My father works for the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs. Other men make radiators or poems. He makes lightning and puts his sun in your house.
I made up the name Martin Drake.
Martin. Bird wings electric current quick.
Drake. Snake breathing fire.
And for draconian.
The power plant is a martin drake.
My father is a martin drake.
But the power plant is not named Martin Drake.
The power plant doesn’t know its real name.
It’s dressed up in blue metal.
Trace the wires back to their beginnings.
You’ll find the power plant.
Martin Drake was a man the power plant is named for.
I didn’t make up the name.
I never said the wires aren’t tangled.
Go to the power plant. Find the classroom. Pull down the canvas roll wedged between the back wall and the ceiling. Printed on the roll is a schematic, a map of the process. Colored lines delineate the machine’s parts: the coal loader, the oceanic fire in the burners, the boiler blasting steam against pinwheel turbines, sparking bolts day and night. Grey scribbles are clouds hot enough to sublimate my father’s bones in an instant.
If I followed this schematic into the power plant it would lead me nowhere.
It could even lead into the fire.
When my cousin was a boy he thought the power plant was a cloud factory.
I thought it was ashes from the coal fires.
My father made Vesuvius.
Cooling towers temper the steam used to spin the turbines, allowing the condensed water to be re-circulated. On cool and humid days the rising vapor saturates the damp air and makes a white fog. The clouds are often mistaken for the smoke from a fire.
Pliny’s vaporous pine disintegrates.
The power plant doesn’t have time to be a cloud factory or a fire.
It doesn’t admire its wispy clouds.
It doesn’t care for its floating hair.
Floating on air.
Second grade. A man from city utilities brought a miniature power line and a small gas generator. He carried a frilly dressed baby doll in a thrift store sack. He turned the machine on and my father’s hum turned the air into glass. The man pulled insulated gloves all the way to his elbows while explaining the danger of downed power lines.
He pulled the plastic child from its plastic womb and tossed it against the wires.
An electric shock feels like many things.
A bone cracking shiver.
A reptile snap of jaws.
A phosphorous camera flash.
A flame that burns itself.
The doll caught fire, cradled in the wires. It pitched from its electrified hammock and fell to the floor. A smell like rotting tires rose from the victim. Polyester clothes melted to pink plastic, dripping on the floor, a new fluid of this tortured body.
My father has a power I do not.
The power plant cares for its children like Medea.
Which is quite a lot. However.
People made of lightning should not touch their babies.
They will become lightning.
My father has two children.
He has attended both our cries.
One lets fire lick its guts.
One has coal stains on its skin.
One is a neuter. One is a son.
Which one? Me
or the power plant.
Twelve years after I saw the baby doll burned on electric wires my father told me that the plastic child had been coated in accelerant. Probably the utilities man had doused it with hairspray in the parking lot before he came in. Without a starter the doll never would’ve burned so quickly.
A sacrifice needs spectacles.
A spectacle needs sacrifices.
Ring of stones centered in a ring of junipers
where my father taught me the most important thing I ever learned.
To make fire you need
heat (bic lighter)
fuel (newspaper, dry grass, branches)
My father’s favorite singer is Johnny Cash
who sang “Love
is a burning thing
and it makes
a fiery ring.”
My father stole a flashlight from God’s cabinet.
Then he taught everyone to build flashlights.
That’s how come we have flashlights.
Percy Shelley says my father is as cool as Satan and a nicer guy too.
Herman Melville says my father is reminds him of Ahab.
Michel Foucault was a man who knew about power.
“Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.”
Without the power plant
the panopticon is a big dark room.
I hear turbines howl
when cameras focus on my skin.
Streetlights let us observe
each other as we pass at night.
Whose hands hold the other ends of their wires?
Power is not a force or a practice or a technology.
It is a Proteus of usages.
Where has the power been planted?
I mean to dig it up and show you the roots.
Wires run from the power plant to a movie theatre
lighting a marquee reading
FRITZ LANG’S METROPOLIS.
A charge runs into the projector
illuminating steel hallucination
onto a canvas sheet.
Three pistons, the outer pair thrust down
when the inner piston thrusts up.
An eccentric disc.
Eros in cogs and whirring.
The machine dance becomes a clock
then becomes a dance of workers.
Two lines of men pass in opposite directions through a pair of gates.
The men going out move twice as a slow as the men going in.
The lines are each six abreast and extend across the shot.
“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a mediator
and this must be the heart.”
But the heart is a thoughtless fist. A dumb pump.
The heart is more like the power plant than it is like love.
The head must let its mirrors fall
to see through the fingertips.
The hands must reach inside the skull
and fill their palms with sparks. Besides.
I have a head and hands both. So does my father.
The power plant burns allegory into ash
that collects on rails and corrodes paint.
A photograph shows the coil rib-caged in a wooden frame.
Two discharges array in the shape of butterfly wings thirty feet across.
Coil’s invisible roots manifest as light.
The white hair of a mad scientist.
Between the discharges a man
sits in a folding chair.
He is reading a book. A bolt strikes inches away. He doesn’t move.
The man is a lightning rod no lightning touches.
He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.
Because the man won’t be there when the bolt strikes.
The photograph is a double exposure.
I can unite station to station without the aid of wires.
I can make a charge flow through air.
But still I don’t have a power plant.
“My project was retarded by laws of nature.
The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time.
But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.”
Which is to say
I can’t make it cohere either.
But I’ve kept the blueprints.
See what you can do with them.
Cells eat like coal burners.
Earth is a small metal ball.
Conductor for currents crossing
a universe that spends itself for fuel.
The present burns the past
to charge the future.
The power plant is a small or large machine made of everything.
Try negative theology.
What is not the power plant?
Read these next lines like Beckett in English.
First lightning almost blinds us.
Only when it flashes can we see
and then we move.
In dark we are blind.
We stand still.
If the lightning had pleased
it would’ve taken our hearing
and our sight.
It has power over anything.
—al Qur’an, Surah 2.20
Please forgive my sin of metonymy.
Nikola Tesla was close to death. He was delirious, and tried to dispatch a messenger with a letter for Mark Twain. It was January 1943. Twain had died in 1910.
When the messenger returned saying that Twain was dead, Tesla reportedly replied, “Don’t you dare tell me Mark Twain is dead. He was in my room, here last night. He sat in that chair and talked to me for an hour. He is having financial difficulties and needs my help. So you go right back and deliver that envelope—and don’t come back until you have done so.” By January 7th Tesla was dead.
A schoolboy in Croatia, Tesla was struck with a series of illnesses. The doctors all but gave up on him. As a pastime he was given a few volumes of Twain’s work. The books absorbed him. Tesla’s spirits were bolstered and he made a sudden recovery.
He reads the book but he can still be hurt.
Once I asked a woman to decorate the dream house
in her mind. She filled nothing
with rust brown, hardwood floors and foggy curtains.
I filled this poem with coal.
A burner for her.
A power plant to light the buildings
in her mind. To light the streets she drives.
My father took a wife
and gave her a well-lit city.
This is the work of poetry
to pay for
bulbs and colors
that make poetry possible.
One night my father’s boss told him to burn all the coal in the world.
My father went into the forest and wrung the necks of a million cardinals, plucking their bodies clean, and filling two pillowcases with feathers. He took one bag to the power plant. He pasted the feathers onto the coals so they looked like they were burning.
He took the other bag of feathers to the people of our city. My father gave the feathers to the people, but they didn’t know it. He crept down their chimneys, and put the feathers in their fire places. The people were tricked, and warmed themselves and read books by the color all night. They went to bed and had to set their second blankets aside.
The sun rose on heaps of unburned coal covered in red feathers. My father’s boss was angry and filed a complaint with Human Relations.
So they wired him to the side of Pikes Peak.
Spliced cables straight into his veins.
Every day the martin drake descends steaming
with coal and blood on its steel scaled feathers
to eat his liver.
And every day a surge of power in the wires
brings his liver back to life.
I built a new power plant for my father.
It’s made of neat wires and photovoltaic cells.
There are no pipes. No turbines.
No steam. No coal.
No fire but the sun’s.
Silicon lakes washing over rooftops.
Aimed up from every sunward pointed surface.
An offering of sapphires.
My father strides in the sun’s true lamplight.
Reflections from solar panels cast blue panes on his jaw.
Windows through which I can almost see him
and that let in enough light to write by.
He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.